Album Review: Indigo Sparke – Echo

[Sacred Bones; 2021]

“Everything is simple.” That’s the final line on Indigo Sparke‘s debut album, uttered almost like an afterthought; a spoken-word exhale. These words (from the scratchy, almost ghostly “Everything Everything”) seem to speak to the core of Sparke’s music here: that what is actually hard is nothing. Or, in her case, almost nothing. Sparke’s arrangements are bare and delicate – a conscious decision made by her and co-producer Adrianne Lenker. “We are all just constantly getting stripped back and humbled by life,” Sparke offers when talking about the record and how she wanted it to sound.

Despite being recorded over a number of years and between L.A., Italy, and New York, Echo manages to remain distinctly consistent in style and tone; you could be convinced the whole thing was recorded over a few quiet afternoons in a homely environment. After 2016’s Night Bloom EP, Sparke has managed to find her voice all that more clearly. She still evokes This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables here and there, and brings to mind Marissa Nadler during her more ghostly, reverberated turns, but for the most part Sparke manages to sink into her own gentle coo and unfussed arrangements.

What helps Sparke define herself is her lyricism. Always verging on being more poetic than simple storytelling, she has a whispy way of capturing intangible feelings. On “Undone” she describes the feeling of drugs kicking in, senses blissfully becoming heightened, and the hangover the day afterwards; “God I feel like hell today / Thought I could find my own way.” “Bad Dreams” describes nightmares with deep-rooted pain in such harrowing detail that it feels like you’re intruding on a therapy session; “You broke all of my ribs in a dream the other night / You said you were not hurting me just trying to hold me tight.” The way her notes sour at the end of some lines gives the impression she is holding back a well of tears mid-song.

Elsewhere, Sparke captures more wholesome and loving feelings with her words. On “Wolf” she details the moment she lets someone become physically intimate with her. It’s a little on the nose both with its lyrics (“I am wet / I am burning / I’m an ocean for you”) and its wolf metaphor (admitting she can only be her true self around her “moon”), but the way Sparke sings the song like a siren in a dream makes it easy to forgive. Contrastingly, she elicits a motherly tone on the likes of “Carnival” and “Dog Bark Echo”. On the latter, it feels like she’s telling a bedtime story to a child; “do you hear the howls?” she asks with a serene theatrical flair over a hum of synths and plucked guitar notes.

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Some listeners may well have been introduced to Sparke without realising it thanks to her being at the core of Adrianne Lenker’s deeply affecting break-up record songs + instrumentals from last year. If you made the link (admittedly it took me a minute to connect the dots) then suddenly “anything” (or even the instrumental “music for indigo”) feels all the more stark and affecting. Should one read into Echo as the other side to the story? Sure, if you want to. You could find possible references all over (“There’s a distance in our words / There’s a distance and it hurts” from opening track “Colourblind”, for instance), but Sparke deals more in intangible feelings and imagery than precise and name-dropping detail, and the fact is that most of Echo was completed prior to the pandemic forcing a rift between them.

Lenker’s instrumental contributions are minimal; she plays gently beside Sparke on a few songs. On “Colourblind” she adds a light extra flavour with some guitar notes, and on “Baby” her voice is sunk away in the background. She never goes to steal the spotlight, leaving Sparke to softly ramble and jangle through her songs.

Indeed, the production helps maintain the focus on Sparke throughout. Every so often an additional player (which includes Big Thief’s James Krivchenia) might melt in some percussion, keys, or additional ambience, but it mostly never does anything beyond accentuate the feeling of the track. Aforementioned “Everything Everything” is a good example, as piano notes seem to leak out of the heavy ambience and scratchy guitar notes.

Like many others, Sparke was a victim of COVID-19 and suffered a slew of cancelled tour dates, including opening for Big Thief on their tour of Australia and New Zealand, and a delay to the release of her album. Now is still a fine time to have Echo in our lives though, feeling like a delicate breath of soft vocals and guitars. It may not be everything you need or want, but, well, as Sparke says herself, “everything is simple.”